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What’s in a tweet? Islamophobe Emerson brings frivolous lawsuit over a joke

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Steven Emerson appeared at the AIPAC conference on Sunday (Image via Jewsonfirst.org)

The Players in the Defamation Suit

Steven Emerson, an anti-Muslim ideologue, is currently suing Cyrus McGoldrick, an American Muslim community organizer and human rights activist, over a tweet that McGoldrick sent to two friends.

First, there is Cyrus McGoldrick, who is an effective and respected advocate, writer, and public spokesperson on behalf of the rights of Muslims and all those facing discriminatory treatment or being targeted (by the state or by individual Islamophobes). When he sent the tweet, McGoldrick was employed at the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a highly-regarded Muslim advocacy organization whose mission, as stated on its website, is “to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.”

Then there is Steven Emerson, a member of what the Center for American Progress has called “an Islamophobia network in America.” [1] Emerson has been notorious for opposing efforts to build mosques (Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Boston, and Park51 in lower Manhattan) and for putting forth false and distorted information. Respected journalists have widely discredited Emerson, describing him as a “self-styled anti-terrorism expert,” “poison,” and “disgraced.” [2] The Muslim Public Affairs Council has identified Emerson as one of “America’s Top 25 Pseudo Experts on Islam.” [3]

Without any evidence, Emerson claimed on network television in 1995 that “Muslim/Middle East extremists” (not Timothy McVeigh) were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing-since, he claimed, “This was done with the attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait.” [4] He has provided “misleading statistics” on various occasions, including Rep. Peter King’s (R-NY) March 2011 hearing on the alleged radicalization of Muslim American communities. [5] Most recently, Emerson claimed erroneously on C-SPAN, based on “‘certain classified information that he was ‘privy to,'” that a Saudi man was responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. [6]

The Tweet

The defamation suit arose out of a November 2012 exchange of tweets between McGoldrick and his friend and colleague, Muslim activist and community leader Linda Sarsour. In her tweet, Sarsour quoted Emerson as making the slanderous remark– yet again– that CAIR was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the nation’s largest terrorism financing trial. McGoldrick knew well, as did Emerson, that a federal appeals court had criticized the federal government labeling of CAIR and 244 other organizations as “unindicted co-conspirators” and that the government subsequently abandoned this “unconstitutional and improper” [7] claim. But, as McGoldrick’s lawyers argue, Emerson has repeatedly made the false charge in his ongoing campaign targeting Muslim organizations and individuals, including CAIR and McGoldrick, in an effort to “smear and damage them.” [8]

After getting Sarsour’s tweet, McGoldrick, responding to his friend, sent a tongue-in-cheek tweet back to her (and to one other person, Hussam Ayloush executive director of CAIR-Los Angeles, whom Sarsour had tweeted) that described Emerson as an “unindicted co-conspirator in the nation’s largest child pornography case.” The two people the tweet was sent to-and anyone who might have followed it-couldn’t have possibly missed McGoldrick’s joke: that is, using “unindicted conspirator” to mock Emerson’s repeated and fraudulent use of the words in relation to CAIR. But after someone sent the tweet to Emerson, he brought a defamation suit against McGoldrick.

The Legal and Political Response

McGoldrick’s legal team has responded to Emerson’s charges by bringing a motion to dismiss the complaint against him. In their response, McGoldrick’s lawyers make perfectly clear how McGoldrick intended the tweet. It was, they wrote, “a response to a sardonic tweet he received from two Muslim activist colleagues . . .[and] an obvious private in-joke that mocked a rabid critic of his and that in context could not be and was not taken literally.” They further argue that McGoldrick’s tweet was “not a statement of fact, but was an ironic statement of opinion criticizing the government’s treatment of Muslim organizations in a terrorism funding trial and was, therefore, protected speech.” They also assert that Emerson brought this libel case, as he has done before, “in a bad-faith attempt to silence those who dare to tell the truth about him and his anti-Islam crusade.” No “reasonable person,” McGoldrick’s lawyers maintain, “could have understood that joke as stating an actual fact about Emerson,” which is fundamental to a “viable libel claim.” Given that even a loyal supporter of Emerson publicly acknowledged that the tweet was a joke, and not an assertion of fact, the lawyers argue that the case should be dismissed. Steven Emerson is part of a network of Islamophobes that is well-funded, connected to right-wing Israeli politics, and an integral part of the U.S. “war on terror.” [9] This frivolous and destructive lawsuit is yet another unsuccessful attempt by the Islamophobes to silence and intimidate those who oppose Islamophobia and stand for justice.

Representing McGoldrick are Alan Levine, civil rights and constitutional attorney; Beena Ahmad, of the National Lawyers Guild’s Muslim Defense Project; Steven Downs, of Project SALAM and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms; and Hassan Ahmad, of Ahmad, Naqvi & Rodriguez. The legal papers can be seen on the CAIR New York website (http://www.cair-ny.org/).

(Author Donna Nevel and Alan Levine, one of the lawyers in the case, are married and are founding members of Jews Against Islamophobia. This post first appeared on Muzzlewatch yesterday.)

1. Wajahat Ali, Eli Clifton, Matt Duss, Lee Fang, Scott Keyes, & Faiz Shakir, Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, August 2011, Center for American Progress, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/report/2011/08/26/10165/fear-inc/.

2. from the Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendant’s Motion for Judgment: See, e.g., Ali Gharib, Disgraced Terror Expert Says Boston Bombs Bear ‘Hallmark; of Muslim Radicals, The Daily Beast (Apr. 16, 2013); Robert Steinbeck, Steven Emerson, Backing King Hearings, Pushes Misleading Statistic on Muslim Terrorism, Hatewatch, Southern Poverty Law Center (Mar. 23, 2011); Eric Boelhert, Terrorists Under the Bed, Salon.com, (Mar. 5, 2002); John Mintz, The Man Who Gives Terrorism A Name, The Washington Post (Nov. 14, 2001); John Sugg, Steve Emerson’s Crusade, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) (Jan. 1, 1999).)

3. MPAC, Not Qualified: Exposing America’s Top 25 Pseudo Experts on Islam, 2012, http://www.mpac.org/assets/docs/publications/MPAC-25-Pseudo-Experts-On-Islam.pdf.

4. Ali et al, Fear Inc.

5. Ali et al, Fear Inc.

6. Alex Seitz-Wald, “The Right’s New Boston Conspiracy Theory,” Salon, April 18, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/04/18/the_rights_new_boston_conspiracy_theory/ (accessed May 6, 2013). See also David Iaconangelo, “Boston Marathon Explosions: Story False, Police Have No Suspect,” Latin Times, April 15, 2013, http://www.latintimes.com/articles/2804/20130415/boston-marathon-explosion-saudi-national-story-false.htm; and Amy Davidson, “The Saudi Marathon Man,” New Yorker, April 17, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/04/the-saudi-marathon-man.html (both accessed May 6, 2013). Also Caitlin Dewey, “Saudi Man Investigated after Boston Marathon Speaks Out,” Washington Post, May 24, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/24/saudi-man-investigated-after-boston-marathon-speaks-out/?print=1 (accessed June 3, 2013). Counterterrorism & Security Education and Research Foundation, “About CTSERF,” http://www.ctserf.org/about.html; Thomas Cincotta, Manufacturing the Muslim Menace: Private Firms, Public Servants, & the Threat to Rights and Security, Political Research Associates, 2011, 44, http://www.publiceye.org/liberty/training/Muslim_Menace_Complete.pdf; Robert I. Friedman, “One Man’s Jihad,” 657. Photocopied article from Muslim Public Affairs Council, Counterproductive Counterterrorism: How Anti-Islamic Rhetoric Is Impeding America’s Homeland Security, December 2004, 18-19, http://www.civilfreedoms.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Counterproductive-Counterterrorism.pdf (all accessed December 13, 2011).

7. From the Answer to the Complaint.

8. From the Answer to the Complaint.

9. Elly Bulkin & Donna Nevel, “Follow the Money: From Islamophobia to Israel Right or Wrong,” October 2012, Alternet.

Donna Nevel
About Donna Nevel

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is co-director of PARCEO, a participatory research center. She is a long-time organizer for justice in Palestine/Israel; against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism; and for a just public education system. She is a founding member of Jews Say No!, Facing the Nakba Project, and Jews Against anti-Muslim Racism (JAAMR) and she was a co-founder of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

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11 Responses

  1. Woody Tanaka
    Woody Tanaka
    July 17, 2013, 10:23 am

    Should be a fairly open and shut case against Emerson. But this is the Bigoted States of America so who knows.

    • Denis
      Denis
      July 17, 2013, 11:56 pm

      I agree 100% w/ iremp, below. It looks to me like an open and shut case FOR Emerson. If some one ever alleged that I was a co-conspirator in child pornography, there is no question that a suit would be all-on.

      The tweet is clearly defamatory, absolutely. In many or most jurisdictions, it doesn’t matter that it was only made to one or two people or in private. The allegation of a vile crime is defamation per se, which means Emerson will not have to prove he was damaged. Damages are presumed.

      Emerson’s lawyers’ excuses are inane. They are trying to turn this into a SLAPP suit, but it ain’t one. This is a valid cause of action. Islamophobia has absolutely nothing to do with this case. That sounds like Uncle Abe labeling every word he doesn’t like or agree with as “antisemitism.” It’s gettin’ to be that everything that ain’t antisemitism is islamophoia.

      Unfortunately for McG. there is no defense of “it was just a joke.” Was the context of the joke somehow attached to the statement as it flew through twitter-space? If so, the joke was obviously lost on Emerson.

      Maybe McG is a great guy and his work is something we should all admire. I have no idea, I’ve never heard of the guy before. But being a great guy and doing good work doesn’t give him license to make such a vile accusation against anyone (unless the accusation is true and he can prove that it is true).

      Here’s what I’m not following b/c I don’t tweet [and this is a good reason why] and I don’t know how it works — the post says McG. sent the tweet to only 2 “friends” who are identified as Linda Sarsour and Hussam Ayloush. And then the post says “[b]ut after someone sent the tweet to Emerson, he brought a defamation suit against McGoldrick.” “Someone?” Who could that be?

      Well, it must be either one of those two “friends” or else one or both of them sent it out into twitter land where is was reproduced who knows how many times before landing in Emerson’s twitter inbox, or whatever.

      Either way, McGoldrick’s bacon is cooked, and good that it should be. Anyone who would say a thing like that about some one ought to get their bacon cooked.

      You gotta’ watch what you send out into cyberspace, including blog comments you think are pretty funny.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        July 18, 2013, 11:37 am

        I disagree completely. And you’re wrong, “it was a joke” actually can be (kind of) a defense in a defamation case, because it negates the requirement that the speaker was making a statement of fact intended it to be believed as a fact. If it is understood that you are merely being insulting or abusive, but not stating a fact, then you don’t have defamation. And here, by virtue of the mimicry of the second statement on the heels of the first, that can be demonstrated.
        It would be the equivalent of:
        “Steve said you’re an unindicted conspirator to commit terrorism.”
        “I say Steve’s an unindicted asshole.”
        In such situation, no one would actually believe that the second statement was a statement of fact, but would see that it was simply an anger outburst. Same here.

        Further, Emerson also has to show malice, because he’s at least a limited public figure, which, again, can be rebutted by a showing that it was intended to be, and received as, a joke.

        As for the Twitter stuff, I have no idea.

      • Denis
        Denis
        July 18, 2013, 7:56 pm

        Woody: “I disagree completely. And you’re wrong”

        Dude, you sound just like my ex-wife.

        Woody, seriously, with all respect, if you’re a lawyer, you really need to go back and review your 1st year law school tort horn books. If you’re one of McG’s lawyers, you might want to advise him to get a second opinion. If you’re not a lawyer, you need to stop pretending to be one. Someone could take you seriously and get into trouble. I’ve litigated a few unpleasant defamation cases in state and federal courts, most recently 2006. I’m certainly not the world’s expert, but I’ve won or settled my cases and I’ve got a pretty good feel for the elements of defamation in Virginia; they’re fairly uniform from state to state.

        Your “asshole” analogy indicates you are out of your “element” here, pun intended. Defamation requires the publication of a false statement of fact. To call someone an asshole is an opinion, unless for some perverse reason you are calling the person the actual anatomical part, literally, as opposed to the slur ass-ociated [pun #2] with the anatomical part. But a person cannot be an asshole literally any more than they can be a mitral valve or prostate gland. Slurs, insults, trash-talk, and other opinions of a person’s worth or uncertain parentage are not generally actionable as defamation. False light maybe, but not defamation.

        OTOH, calling someone a conspirator in a child porn case is not an opinion, it is a statement of fact, which in the law is any statement that can be verified as objectively true or false.

        As to McG’s intent, you’re wrong again. It makes no difference what McG intended, except with the possible exception of common law malice, which is ill-will or hatred and goes to one’s state of mind. But for the basic finding of defamation, the statement is only analyzed as to what effect the allegation, if it were true, would have on Emerson’s reputation in the community, irrespective of what effect McG wanted it to have.

        I mean, c’mon, dude, think about it. You should know that you can’t, for instance, accuse X of being a pedophile, and thereby wreck his reputation, get him fired, cause him all sorts of emotional anguish and embarrassment, and when you get dragged into court, say: “Ha, ha, ha. Only joking, Your Honor. No harm intended. Really.”

        But your are right so far as there possibly being a Sullivan question of actual malice [not common law malice] if Emerson is considered to be a public figure. But the actual malice here seems pretty obvious.

        Actual malice is nothing more than publishing a false allegation of fact knowing that it is false at the time it is published, or publishing it with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was false. By saying “Ha, ha, ha, it was just a joke” it seems to me that McG is cutting his own throat by admitting he sent the tweet knowing full well that Emerson is not a co-conspirator in a child pornography case. In fact, McG’s admission that it was a joke is probably all the evidence that would be needed for Emerson’s case to at least survive summary judgment even if Emerson is a public figure.

        But Emerson will argue actual malice regardless of whether or not he is a public figure b/c the great thing about actual malice is that once Emerson proves it, punitive damages are almost guaranteed. Actual malice is the gateway to punitive damages. That’s also called “hitting the jackpot, baby.”

        Legal notice:
        This is, of course, not legal advice and not intended as such, but rather off-the-clock babble upon which no one should rely without consulting either Wikipedia or their own on-the-clock attorney. Nor is this an advertisement or a solicitation, but to the extent that it is deemed by the Virginia State Bar to be an advertisement or solicitation, then I guess it must be and is hereby marked as such.

  2. Citizen
    Citizen
    July 17, 2013, 10:52 am

    What’s in a tweet?
    You should know that Twitter has caved into a French Jewish Student group’s request to hand over all details and ID of anybody posting hate speech (as the Jewish group sees it) against Jews on its platform: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35565.htm
    Slippery slope, eh? Thus with no doubt good intent, Twitter has joined the drive to circumscribe free speech on the internet. Anybody know if Twitter has come out with some guidelines on hate speech, especially in this narrow context?

    Apparently, whether Twitter will do this, depends on the free speech/hate speech laws of the Twitter’s home country, in this case France, which is way more restrictive than USA: http://ideas.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/07/12/twitter_loses_french_hate_speech_case

  3. Citizen
    Citizen
    July 17, 2013, 11:07 am

    When hate speech hits social media: http://forward.com/articles/157134/when-hate-speech-hits-social-media/?p=all

    Twitter v Facebook, on how they are handling group or state requests to limit speech on their platforms, and the business angle behind it too. Jewish groups are clearly in the lead to censor, along with the usual states like China, Pakistan, etc.

  4. American
    American
    July 17, 2013, 2:07 pm

    ”McGoldrick’s legal team has responded to Emerson’s charges by bringing a motion to dismiss the complaint against him. ”

    They need to do more than that..they should sue Emerson.
    As before—when someone starts using the same law-warfare on them and costing them, then you will see some backing down on their propaganda and lies..

  5. hophmi
    hophmi
    July 17, 2013, 4:51 pm

    I’m not a fan of Steve Emerson. The fact is that CAIR was once named as an unindicted co-conspirator, and the fact is that Steve Emerson has never been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a child porn case. I’m not sure what kind of inside joke that is, particularly on a viral media platform. Cyrus McGoldrich has over 1600 followers. It doesn’t really matter whether you like Emerson or not.

  6. irmep
    irmep
    July 17, 2013, 7:00 pm

    Taking a page from the Rosen v AIPAC defamation case, apparently a plaintiff to a suit must prove:

    http://www.irmep.org/ila/rosen/04262012opinion.pdf

    “1. that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff;
    (2) that the defendant published the statement without privilege to a third party;
    (3) that the defendant’s fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence; and
    (4) either that the statement was actionable as a matter of law irrespective of special harm or that its publication caused the plaintiff special harm.

    A publication is defamatory ‘if it tends to injure plaintiff in his trade, profession or
    community standing, or lower him in the estimation of the community.’ However, an allegedly defamatory remark must be more than unpleasant or offensive; the language must make the plaintiff appear ‘odious, infamous, or ridiculous.’”

    Emerson is probably pretty familiar with defamation laws. And no matter how absurd his smears of Muslim communities are, he is careful to always try to tie an accusation to a source, leaving open the defense that he was mistaken, but not malicious in his research. While Emerson appears ‘odious infamous and ridiculous’ on the basis of these smear efforts to many, he undoubtedly takes his work very seriously, as do many nodes of the Israel lobby and their financial backers. And his work won’t be on trial. The entirely made-up statement that he’s tied to a “child pornography case” will be. And if he wins, which is entirely likely, it’ll be trumpeted as a win against his arch-enemy CAIR which is not a even a party to the suit.

  7. TwoRedDogs
    TwoRedDogs
    July 18, 2013, 1:46 am

    McGoldrick should’ve known to avoid a suit by posing it as a ‘question’. Same effect without the hassle.

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